My name is Jehanzeb. It’s not hard to pronounce. It’s three syllables, pronounced Ja-han-zayb. “Ja” like in “jump,” “han” like “Han Solo,” and “zayb,” rhymes with “Gabe.” See, I even made a funny little mnemonic device to help you remember it easier. Yes, it is a South Asian Muslim name, and no, I don’t go by “anything shorter.” Not “J,” not “Z,” and especially not “John.”
Before I continue, I want to stress that I like nicknames. My close friends have nice nicknames for me (you know who you are!) and it doesn’t bother me when they address me that way. My frustration in no way comes from them, but rather from people who, unlike my friends, consistently cannot pronounce my full name and refuse to make any efforts to listen, learn, or remember after I correct them. My friends who address me by nicknames know how to pronounce my full name while others just want to alter it for their own convenience and don’t care if they’re offending or disrespecting me.
Interestingly, I notice this happens more often at one particular location than others (and I’ll refrain from sharing too many details, but it’s located in the predominately White Judeo-Christian suburban area I live). Most of my college professors and classmates get it after a day or two (if I’m lucky, they’ll know how to pronounce it correctly on the first day), and even those who struggle with it longer eventually figure it out. But, my God, if I were get paid every time someone butchered my name in the past 5 or 6 months, I think I would be free of a few car payments.
Quite often, when people look at my name, they squint their eyes and ask me how to pronounce it. I don’t mind if they’re genuinely interested in learning its origin or how to pronounce it, but it really ticks me off when people do one of, but not limited to, the following: give me the “Holy s@#!” face, widen their eyes, drop their jaws, laugh for their own amusement (like, “ho ho ho, that’s an unusual name, I don’t know how in the world I’m going to say that”), and then ask, “Do you go by anything shorter?” It still surprises me that they don’t realize how offensive that question is. Stop and think about it. You are asking someone if they go by a nickname just because you have a tough time saying it. The implication is that your name is incompatible with the Western country you live in and that you – an ethnic and/or religious minority – must “accommodate” the privileged dominant culture by anglicizing your name.
All through grade school, I had an anglicized nickname, which I have, um, outlawed now. Every year, on the first day of classes, my teachers would butcher my name during role call, “Jahazabah?” “Jihaan-sib?” Kids would laugh, then the teacher would (haha, get a load of this foreigner’s name!). I would raise my hand (although I didn’t need to since I was the only brown kid most of the time) and say, “You can just call me [outlawed nickname].” My teacher would have a “Thank God” look on his/her face and then say, “Oh ok, that’s easy.” Yayy, the brown kid has an “American name, “we’re all happy now.
Over the years, I learned that anglicizing my name didn’t stop me from being stereotyped or harassed by ignorant White people. People would still insult me based on my skin color and ethnicity. Prior to 9/11, kids would call me “Apu” (you know, the fake Indian character from “The Simpsons” who is horribly voiced by a non-Indian?). Other times, they would call me “black” in a derogatory manner, or “jungle man,” or ask me ignorant questions just to mess with me, “Are you a prince like Aladdin?” After 9/11, I was called “Osama,” even with my silly nickname. Changing my name just to “fit in” did not change my skin color, my ethnicity, my religion, or the fact that my parents spoke with an accent. In the early post 9/11 years, I reflected on my nickname (among other things in my past) and felt that I was trying to hide who I was.
That is when I started to go by my real name. The name that my parents gave me, the name that links me to my Muslim and Pakistani background and has actual meaning: “Beauty of the world” (Jehan = world, zayb = beauty). In my freshman year of college, I noticed that no one in the class scoffed or laughed at my name when it was mispronounced by the professor. This made me more comfortable to teach him how to say it correctly. More than anything, it surprised me that my real name is not hard to pronounce and White non-Muslims can actually say it! Throughout grade school, I was conditioned to think my name was impossibly difficult, but now it’s really nice to hear people outside of my ethnic and religious background say it right!
Every once in a while, I hear some people (and including some who are fellow people of color) say, “But Jehanzeb, you have to understand that they’re not used to your name,” or “Your name is not a common one, that’s why I’m asking,” or “we have to make things easier for other people.” Um, believe me, I understand my name is uncommon to a lot of people and I anticipate mispronunciations any time I meet new people, apply for a job, start another semester at school, etc. It doesn’t bother me when people get it wrong the first time, but what bothers me is when people think it’s okay to assume that I go by another name (other than the one my parents gave me!) just because I’m living in America.
Some people even get offended when I tell them I don’t go by anything shorter than my real name. Seriously? Does it kill you that you can’t call me by a nickname? Do you feel discriminated or oppressed by a brown man just because you can’t make a name up for him like he’s your pet or child? Do you go home and lose sleep over the fact some brown guy told you to address him by his full name? If I went by another name, I would have told you already. It would be on my name tag at work, it would be at the top of my test papers, but it’s not; my real name is, so please address me by that. If you have a tough time pronouncing it, then just ask. I won’t bite.
As I said, my name has meaning. It is important to me and I am proud of it. I should not be perceived or treated like a “cultural outsider” just because I want to be addressed by it. I have the right to be called what I want to be called just like everyone else. If you so badly want to give me a nickname, then get to know me, let’s chat, hang out, and become good friends. Then you can call me whatever you want ;)